List my strengths? How much time do we have?

3 10 2011

The importance of working from a strengths based perspective is one of the first things I learned in social work school.

For those of us not familiar with this, it’s exactly what it sounds like. When people come to us for help, they come to us with problems. Especially if they’re referred by another source due to parenting problems. (ACS, family court, I’m looking in your direction.) They’re constantly hearing: you did this wrong. You should have done it this way. You’re deficient in this area.

So it can be pretty empowering when they come to us, and the first thing they hear is: what’s working for you guys? What are you good at? What are you doing well?

Abusive monsters are fairly rare. That’s why they make the news. Most of the people we work with have some strengths. It can be disheartening, at times, to see how hard it is for some people to name one of their strengths. They just draw a blank. What do you mean, something that the family is good at? Would we be here if we were good at things? One of my most important social work skills is helping them to start small, so they can build on that.

SocialJerk: “Well, you’re here. That’s a strength.”
Mom:           “Only because the judge said I had to come.”
SocialJerk   “But she didn’t carry you here. And you brought the kids. They all have clothes on and they seem to have been fed.”
Mom:          “Um, yeah. You’re saying me not bringing in naked, hungry kids is a good thing? What do you see in this office?”

Ma’am, you have no idea.

It’s true. Everybody has strengths. And many things can be viewed in a more positive light. Yes, you hit your kids, but you did it because you were worried about them getting hurt because they stayed out all night. It doesn’t make what you did OK, but the fact that you had the right motivation means that you can change. You can learn ways to discipline your children that will be less destructive and more effective.

Sometimes, though, kids are in danger. And sometimes, strengths need to take a back seat.

A coworker of mine, back at my second year field placement, had a rather tricky family. The parents had joint custody and a contentious relationship. In this situation, the father was more together than the mother, who rarely prioritized her child and was rather unpredictable in her moods.

A conference was held, due to the father’s concerns about inadequate guardianship and medical neglect when the five year old was with her mother. Apparently, when the little girl was with her mother, she complained about chest pains one night. The mother told her that it was “just her boobies growing,” and to go back to bed.

We all remember hearing those motherly words of wisdom, don’t we ladies? Almost amusing. But this kid had a pre-existing heart condition, and this could have been really bad.

As an agency, we approach our families from a strengths-based perspective. Like geometric proofs, though, this has its limits. (I apologize for that. Sincerely.)

My coworker was horrified by a number of things. One, that the mother was not worried about her daughter’s heart health. At least, not enough to take her to the emergency room that night, or even to make an appointment with the pediatrician the next day. Two, that the mother could not admit that this might have been an error in judgment.

Unfortunately, her supervisor did not help with the horror.

“So what I’m hearing is, you have a different view of when children should be taken to the doctor?”

Yes. Her view isn’t “wrong,” it’s “different!” She believes children should only be taken to the doctor when healthy or dead. Not when they’re ill. Maybe it’s cultural?

No. It was just wrong. And people using this empowering approach incorrectly and irresponsibly makes us all look like whackjobs who don’t put children’s safety first.

I don’t believe in focusing only on what a family is doing poorly, or how they are putting their children at risk. But there is pretty much always some place to meet in the middle. I have to remind myself that just because I dislike the child protective worker’s approach, it doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong.

Most of my philosophy of work, life, relationships, and eating cheetos boils down to moderation. It is our friend. A happy medium does, in fact, exist. We can keep more than one idea in the forefront of our minds. Safety, and strengths. Guidance, and empowerment. Cheesy snacks, and not having to buy new pants.

We can’t be so married to any one philosophy that it clouds our common sense. Because I’m finding more and more that it isn’t as common as I thought.

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6 responses

6 10 2011
Donna

I think the need for different approaches, in different situations, is easy to understand.
In the ER, I don’t have the luxury of looking for a familys strength: when you beat your kids with a baseball bat, my first priority is making sure your kid stays alive… sorry Mom, you can look for your own strength while you take a ‘time out’ in jail.

6 10 2011
socialjerk

Oh I’m not arguing against the use of different approaches. Just against the idea of being so committed to any on approach that it blinds us to other options.

In my work, we’re not investigating, we’re working on the (most often safe and realistic) goal of preserving the family. So in our work, looking for strengths is far from a luxury, it’s how the work gets done. The example I provided, though, was of how I feel like that can go wrong. Like you say, the children’s safety always has to be number one.

It is difficult with these different perspectives, though, because ultimately we all need to work together, but it can start to feel like we’re up against each other. Instead of all on the side of the family.

7 10 2011
Donna

I think your last statement is where we would part company… I’m
not, necessarily ‘on the side of the family’; I’m committed to the safety and well being of children.
While, for the majority, that may be compatible with them staying within their family of origin, I don’t think we should be blindly married to the idea that children MUST remain with their biological parents.

We have a hard time, as a profession and as a society, admitting that there are people whose pathology precludes them from safely raising a child.
I wouldn’t have gone into Social Work if I didn’t believe people were capable of change; however, I also don’t believe children should be kept at risk while parents try, for years, to get their act together.
The focus on ‘family preservation’ has had dire, and even fatal, consequences for several kids on my caseload.
Since I ONLY see the ones who are re- injured, I don’t have the same perception you do… I’ll look forward to hearing more about the successes!

7 10 2011
socialjerk

I don’t think we really are in disagreement. When I say I work on the side of the families, I should specify that I’m talking about the work that I do. Preventive services are specifically for families who have been determined to be able to provide a safe environment for their children, with supportive services provided. Clearly the population you’re working with is not in the same situation, so our approach would not be in the best interests of the children. While working with families, the safety of the children is number one.

I 100% agree that we can’t be blindly committed to family preservation. That kind of dogmatic dedication to any viewpoint is what I’m really arguing against. I’ve seen it in my own family, when my aunt and uncle were blocked from adopting their foster child by a judge who was, let’s say obsessed, with keeping biological families together. Meaning that a medically fragile toddler was returned to her disinterested, developmentally disabled 15 year old mother, who was in care herself. Infuriating.

A vast majority of the time, I agree that the children I work with are safe in their homes, with support. In cases like the one I wrote about, they are not. I think that sometimes, admitting this in preventive services is seen as a failure of services. I don’t believe it is, and I think we need to get away from that because it can be dangerous for the child.

6 10 2011
ECMH Nerd

i try to incorporate a strengths approach too. i work with child care providers and families with young children. the finger pointing can be fast and furious at times.

but one family will always stand out in my mind. the child care provider was worried about neglect, the family had some immigration issues, and mom sounded like a bit of a bully with dad. you know, they’re walking the line but not to the point that i can call dcfs.

their son was sweet, gentle, but shutting down and lagging in some basic developmental areas. i wanted the parents to know that my role was to support the child care provider and, like the parents, i wanted what was best for their child. i got scared looks from the dad who made intense eye contact with the floor. i got blank stares and empty ‘mm-hmms’ from mom. finally, to stop myself from talking further, i just said, ‘so tell me about your son. what are your dreams and hopes for him?’

mom simply smiled quietly and said ‘i don’t know. i guess i don’t have any.’

for the first time, dad made eye contact with me and said ‘whatever he wants to be, he can do it. i just want him to have a better life and to not have to work in factories like we do.’

oh god i just wanted to hug that man and kick her at the same time but my sweet ninja moves weren’t yet totally developed.

7 10 2011
socialjerk

The borderline families are so tricky. That’s the majority of what I work with. I think at times just hearing that they are doing some things right, and that it’s ok to talk about that and recognize it, can be really empowering in making changes.

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